Standardized tests increasingly push parents to opt out

Standardized tests increasingly push parents to opt out

Will Taft



Last week Grady students took the new Milestones End of Course tests, aligned with the Common Core standards Georgia adopted in 2010 and the assessment requirements outlined by No Child Left Behind.

Across the country, standardized tests such as the Milestones are drawing wide-ranging criticism from opponents of Common Core and from parents concerned about the frequency and volume of standardized assessments in education. In states such as New York and Florida, thousands of students have “opted-out” and not taken standardized tests as a sign of their displeasure.

In Georgia, the opt-out movement is growing, but still remains an afterthought for the majority of the Grady community due to procedural uncertainty concerning opting out and the Milestones’ potential effects on grade promotion.

“Opt out is one of the loudest voices parents have right now,” said Meg Norris, leader of the Georgia Opt-Out movement and a former teacher in the Hall County school system. “You have a legislature with money stuck in their ears to the point where they can’t hear us and they can’t hear our kids. [Opting-out] is truly civil disobedience.”

Mary Lin Elementary School parent Julie Roseman considered opting her children out of the Milestones tests. Roseman said she was dismayed with the sheer quantity of “developmentally unsound” tests her children were taking.

“The testing killed the curiosity and love of learning of my children,” Roseman said.

According to Norris, high amounts of testing create “toxic levels” of stress for students.

When Roseman asked the school administration if she could opt her daughter out of the Milestones, they asked if she was a member of the Tea Party. Roseman said she was taken aback by the school’s response that seemed to disregard the suffering of her children. Ultimately, her daughter took the test, but only because Roseman was concerned with her daughter accumulating school absences from missing the test and subsequent testing make up days.

Besides, Roseman said, when students are not taking tests, testing still impacts their education. Roseman felt she had no real way to opt out of the testing culture, citing school and teacher evaluations attached to testing that put pressure on teachers to rush through content.

“The vast amount of standards I have to go through by test time means that it is almost impossible to go in depth with topics,” said Clara Green, an elementary school teacher in APS.

Green said it was heartbreaking to continue teaching when students were clearly struggling with topics or lacked the foundation required to learn. Green, who works with many low-income students, said she is unable to backtrack when her evaluation hinges on test scores.

“Standardized tests are the biggest thing in the way of [my students’] education,” Green said.

According to Matt Cardoza, the Director of Communications for the Georgia Department of Education, the Milestones will be used as one component to determine a school’s College and Career Ready Index score, the crux of the state’s school accountability system. Milestones scores will also count for 50 percent of teacher evaluations.  Due to a waiver passed by the State Board of Education, the results of this year’s Milestones will not be used for school or teacher evaluations.

Green said it was “insane” that the state still relied on high-stakes tests considering the cheating scandal at Atlanta Public Schools.

Grady teacher social studies teacher Lee Pope said he saw little reason to be concerned with cheating because the Milestones were graded by “a disinterested third party,” the state.

An APS teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, opted her child out of the Milestones because she saw the test as antithetical to the critical-thinking skills students should develop. Besides the instructional days lost to test taking, the teacher said she noticed her students losing the ability to synthesize information.

“It will be a rare student that goes through this testing regime and has an authentic thought in their head,” the teacher said.

Matt Cardoza, the Director of Communications for the Georgia Department of Education, said the Milestones will challenge students and stimulate critical thinking skills.

“The Milestones is designed to be at a higher level,” Cardoza said, “It has a lot of the open-ended responses. There’s more critical thinking to it. You have to know the answer rather than what could be guessed.”

Green, who currently teaches with Georgia Performance standards instead of the Common Core, said she likes the idea of curriculum shared across states. Other opponents of the Milestones, like Norris, see the test as a symptom of a larger, underlying Common Core issue. Norris said she informs parents who talk to her about opting out of what she views as the insidious connection between Common Core and the Milestones.

According to the Georgia Department of Education website, the Milestones are intended to reflect Georgia’s adoption of the Common Core which “provides a consistent framework to prepare students for success in college and/or the 21st century workplace.”

“The Milestones are directly attached to the Common Core,” Norris said. “You don’t get one without the other. When you have standards in a classroom that are attached to high-stakes testing, they become the only thing that is taught.”

Cardoza said the Milestones will reflect any change in standards and are not inherently connected to Common Core.

Norris said the Common Core standards determined by the federal government hurt young students by forcing them to do too much when they are too young; the difficulty of the common core is met with tears and tantrums from students.

“[Teaching the Common Core] is like trying to teach a 3-month-old to speak,” Norris said.

Cardoza said Common Core provides a consistent framework for students across the state and ensures students are taught the skills they need to succeed after high school. In addition, Cardoza said Common Core does not put stress on students because Georgia was already using performance standards to guide education.

“[Common Core standards] are the kind of standards that ensure our students are ready for college or career after high school,” Cardoza said.

Norris sees opting out of the Milestones as a viable option to halt Common Core because removal of the Milestones would remove the impetus for teachers to follow the standards.

Even without Common Core in classrooms, standardized tests still drive parents to opt out.

Jeanne Acton-Shanks, a parent in Texas, opted her son out of the Texas STAAR examinations. She decided she had to push to opt her son out after he cried at the prospect of entering the third grade and being evaluated with the STAAR test. Unlike the Milestones, STAAR is not aligned with the Common Core.

“I am 100 percent opposed to high-stakes testing,” Acton-Shanks said.

While other students test, Acton-Shanks takes her son to baseball games, museums, and to talk to lawmakers about the harms of testing. Acton-Shanks said the tests were of “little use” to her son’s teachers and unrepresentative of his educational growth.

“Basically, I figure, any activity is more enriching than sitting in a classroom for four hours bubbling a test,” Acton-Shanks said.

Teachers within APS questioned the usefulness of the Milestones test to educate students. Green said that because the results from the Milestones come two months into the next school year, teachers are unable to craft instruction based on the scores.

According the Georgia Department of Education website, the Georgia Milestones “are designed to provide students with critical information about their own achievement and their readiness for their next level of learning – be it the next grade, the next course, or endeavor (college or career).”

“The Milestones are not an accurate reflection of anything,” Green said. “We aren’t even getting them back until October.”

Norris said the information teachers receive from the Milestones is worthless in guiding instruction because the score report gives no detailed information and only indicates if a student has mastery of broad domains. According to Norris, teachers receive little guidance in reading the test results and the what the appropriate response to the scores is.

“[The Milestones is a] test that doesn’t measure what it’s supposed to measure, has never been proven to measure what it’s supposed to measure and really gives us nothing back,” Norris said.

Pope said that while he thinks the Milestone EOC is redundant for students who take AP tests, he understands that the state needs a standardized measure of student achievement.

“I think we can accept that the state has passed something like the Milestones,” Pope said of the Grady community.

While parents like Acton-Shanks and Roseman are concerned primarily with the stress from tests, Norris fears the Milestones indicate growing corporate control of education. Georgia entered a $107.8-million, five-year contract with McGraw Hill to develop the Milestones testing system. According to McGraw Hill’s Common Core solution website, McGraw-Hill Education endorsed Common Core and played a role in the dialogue to determine the standards.

“When you’ve written the standards and now you’ve written the test you control everything that’s being taught,” Norris said, “You literally control the education of these kids.”

According to the anonymous teacher, corporate interests turn education’s focus from students to profit. The teacher said the money spent on testing should be put towards smaller class sizes and teacher materials.

“When you’ve got hedge fund managers salivating at the prospect of a testing machine, like we have driving our academic setting, it’s repulsive,” the teacher said.

Within Georgia, Norris says the opt-out out movement is at a disadvantage. Many parents are confused about the opt-out process and its potential repercussions. Georgia lacks a specific law clarifying whether students can opt out, leaving parents in limbo.

As the state has no specific policy on opting out, school administrators are often unsure how to respond to these requests. Raymond Dawson, Grady testing administrator said in an email he received no instructions from the district on responding to opt-out requests. Dawson also said he has not received a request from any parents in Grady to opt-out.

“What we’ve told school districts is that they should provide an alternative assignment or alternative location [for students who opt-out],” Cardoza said.

In the attempt to avoid fallout with school administration, and due to confusion about current testing law many parents think their only option is remove their child from school during testing days.

“When you have parents who are working three jobs just to survive, they do not have time to sit down and understand that it is their right [to opt out],” Norris said

According to Georgia State Board of Education policy, third-, fifth-, and eighth-grade students should not be promoted to the next grade if they do not achieve grade level on the Milestones test in reading and mathematics. In high school, the Milestone score is intended to account for 20 percent of a student’s final grade. This year, however, the State Board of Education passed a waiver so that the Milestones would not be used for grade promotion or as a component of a high school student’s final grade.

When the Milestones do count towards grade promotion, students can still be promoted to the next grade if the parents appeal to a placement committee comprised of the principal, the parent making the appeal and the teacher of the tested subject. With the unanimous support of the placement committee, the student is promoted to the next grade. Norris said this allows students to graduate from one grade to the next without taking the Milestones.

According to Norris, parents have trouble joining the wider opt-out movement because of a lack of media coverage. In addition, Georgia’s spread-out population further slows the propagation of the opt-out message.

“Georgia is at a distinct disadvantage because we don’t have as many metropolitan pockets as a state like Florida,” Norris said.

Norris, the anonymous teacher, Green and Roseman hope to see the opt-out movement grow in Georgia. Future participation will be crucial to the success of the opt-out movement in undermining standardized tests.

“Until we have declared our public schools a common good and a civic duty to protect and not to plunder for greedy corporate profit chiefs, we are going to keep perpetuating this myth that standardized tests are good for our students,” the teacher said.